iSimangaliso’s critical habitat restoration through stewardship
In a prime example of innovative thinking, a ground-breaking agreement in 2000, between economic sectors that are usually polarised, resulted in a partnership that has created enormous benefits for the environment and in particular people who live on the margins of society. Today, the Eastern and Western Shores sections of iSimangaliso stand proudly as a leading example of what can be achieved when working together for the greater good.
The innovative land incorporation agreement was between the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority and SiyaQhubeka Forests (SQF, owned by land restitution communities together with Mondi). Various other parties including SAFCOL, the then Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF), Department of Environmental Affairs and communities were part of the negotiations.
In the late 1990s, former iSimangaliso CEO Andrew Zaloumis supported by former Minister of Environment Valli Moosa, motivated for and received National Cabinet approval for the SAFCOL plantations in and adjacent to the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, that were planted on hydromorphic soils, to be incorporated into the Park and restored to natural areas. At the time, the Park was highly fragmented but still included pristine conservation areas. Some of these areas were integral to eco-system functioning but with conservation-incompatible land uses such as commercial plantations, fell between the pristine areas and were excluded from the Park.
Commercial plantations, wetlands and coastal grasslands covered some 15 951ha of the Eastern and Western Shores of the Park. These plantations had been identified as one of the dominant threats to the hydrology of the Lake St Lucia system and its associated wetlands (more so in droughts) and to the survival of endemic wetland species as far back as 1966 by the Kriel Commission. Commercial plantation species such as Eucalyptus consume up to five times more water than indigenous vegetation, have deeper roots enabling greater access to the water table and consequently outcompete indigenous vegetation. This reduces grazing, browsing and fruit production which has a knock-on effect on crocodiles, birds and other animals. The lowering of the water table also affects the resilience of the system.
The effects of the environmental degradation were far-reaching. The region in which iSimangaliso is situated is marked by 80% unemployment and more than 15 000 families (80 000 people) depend significantly on Lake St Lucia for their livelihoods (grazing, fish and other natural resources). Commercial line and prawn fisheries are also dependent on this wetland system.
Andrew Zaloumis (Chair) and Peter Gardiner of Mondi (V/C) led a task team that pioneered a public/private/community partnership solution that implemented Cabinet’s decision in a way that optimised economic and ecological sustainability, and resulted in the inclusion of new high value wetlands and grasslands being incorporated into the greater Park. This was built on collaboration and trust between commercial forestry and conservation. At the first meeting, Peter Gardiner recalls “Bill Bainbridge, Andrew Venter and Andy Blackmore immediately picked up the main issue was “water and wetlands” and they made sure I fully appreciated the wonderful biodiversity and scenic values of iSimangaliso.”
The land that was brought into the Park was assessed on hydrological indicators and soil types, as well as economic viabilities of plantations and tourism. A 158km eco-track was delineated primarily based on ecosystems. This eco-track was the first of its kind globally. The eco-track separates commercial forestry areas from conservation areas. In SQF areas, former SAFCOL plantations have been retracted from hydromorphic soils in line with Mondi’s new philosophy of new generation plantations. Partners contribute in line with their specialities. For example, SQF manages firebreaks and iSimangaliso does game management. Maintenance of the 120km outer boundary fence is shared. Game roam freely in the SQF areas, while small enterprises benefit from honey production, firewood collection and timber farming support schemes.
iSimangaliso programmes include job creation: local SMME contractors and several thousand workers are contracted for land care and rehabilitation programmes as well as construction of park infrastructure; community entrepreneurship and higher education; and community ownership and management of tourism lodges and tourism activity businesses. Lake St Lucia now generates some 8000 direct local tourism jobs and some 7% of KZN’s tourism GDP. Each year over 220 local schools visit the Park and participate in the Park’s environmental education programme together with some 550 000 visitors.
During the drought of 2008-2012, with 80% of the uMphathe river catchment plantation free, the Lake Narrows retained fresh water at a time when the rest of the Lake was either hyper-saline (twice the salinity of sea water) or bone dry. Unlike previous droughts, ground water seepages keep wetlands and pans alongside the lake functioning. These became refuges for animals, in particular, for the 800 hippo and 1200 crocodile in the system. Notably with the recovery of the wetlands, crowned cranes and secretary birds are increasingly seen in the area. Their presence is a clear sign of restoration and the recovery of wetlands and major ecosystems.
Says Park Operations Director Sizo Sibiya: “The rewilding of major eco-systems includes reinstating originally occurring game on the Western Shores, essential for trophic cascades – the tumbling food chains that include bulk grazers/feeders such as buffalo and elephants. The retraction of plantations and inclusion of SQF land has been a significant part of enabling this historic rehabilitation.”
For media enquiries and photographs contact Slie Msweli on +27 79 6320 363 or firstname.lastname@example.org.